Why I feel sad when people congratulate me for finishing the Pittsburgh Marathon
I’m on the second day of recovery after my debacle of a Pittsburgh Marathon two days ago. The recovery has been going very well; I think I’ll probably be walking “normally” (to a point) tomorrow. But meanwhile, I’ve been dealing with a lot of anger and sadness.
I feel the most angry and sad when people congratulate me for finishing the marathon.
A warning up front: in this post I’m going to talk about some things that might give the wrong impression and make you angry, but I assure you that I am just speaking from the heart, and that my own reaction to finishing my marathon has no bearing on how I feel about your finishing your marathon, or anyone else’s. I simply have certain goals for myself when doing things like marathons, and I don’t believe that everyone has or should have the same kinds of goals as I do, and I respect your own goals.
I’m also writing this because I think I’m speaking not only for myself, but for other runners who might also feel the same way but tiptoe around expressing their feelings, precisely because of the fear of offending those who might take the self-criticism the wrong way.
Not my first marathon
I think the first thing you have to realize is that this is not my first marathon. It is my second Pittsburgh Marathon. And it is probably the sixth time I at least mostly run (versus walked) a consecutive 26.2 miles or more.
I was fairly thrilled to finish my first marathon, which was the 2003 Pittsburgh Marathon, even though it was also basically an embarrassing disaster, because it was my first. There is nothing like the first, because before going in, no matter what, you just wonder whether you will finish at all. It is so unknown.
Marathon-long training run
I did one or two marathon-long training runs just by myself in Frick Park and Homewood Cemetery in 2006, while trying to toughen myself up for the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge. I did those slowly, so that I experienced none of the suffering from going too fast in my first Pittsburgh Marathon. This was a very important experience for me because I needed to prove to myself that simply going very slowly, I could cover a marathon distance any day of my life by just hopping out of bed without any special training. I wanted to defuse the mystique of the marathon.
I ended up abandoning doing my own marathon-distance runs, however, because even if I didn’t suffer horribly, it still took a long time to fully recover. In fact, I made the mistake of playing in a chess tournament two days after one of these runs and had one of the worst tournaments in my life, in which my brain was deprived of fuel and I could not think. Ben Finegold, I never explained to you why I self-destructed while easily winning a game against your (then) wife in the Columbus Open, but now you know!
Sammy’s Birthday Run
In 2006, I ran/walked (after completing the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge) Sammy’s Birthday Run, covering 27.5 miles before I quit. I was going pretty slow. I was not doing it for time. I was doing it just to finish at least a marathon distance, although I was kind of hoping to get to 30 miles (I stopped because I felt my body had enough and I didn’t need more punishment). I didn’t time myself, but I know I finished in about 5 hours and 15 minutes (there is a 6 hour time limit for the run, and I arrived about half an hour late for the official start). This was with no carb-loading, any of that stuff. Just showing up an running really slowly, walking some of the uphill sections. I drank some sports drink that I brought, and ate boiled potatoes and pretzels.
No cramping up, no suffering (other than increasing fatigue and leg heaviness). Here is what I looked like finishing:
In 2008, I did Sammy’s Birthday Run again, with even less training and fitness. This time I timed myself. I finished my 27.5 miles in 5:55:22. Hardly a great time, but it was a finish, and without any real suffering except at one moment. At around mile 22, I made the mistake of eating some cookies that someone had brought, and was in instant agony with stomach cramps. I slowed way down for a couple of minutes. Then I sat down for 9 minutes, used the Port-a-pottie, was OK again, and continued. But other than that incident, I had no leg or foot problems. So, basically what I’m saying is that for me, finishing a marathon distance by simply going slow is trivial, and therefore does not give me a sense of accomplishment. For you, finishing might be nontrivial, in which case you definitely deserve to be proud upon finishing your marathon!
So another thing that some people have said is, “You should be proud of myself for all the training I put in to finish the marathon!”
But I’m not proud. I’m embarrassed and angry.
One reason: it is possible that with no training whatsoever, I could have finished Sunday’s marathon in 4:38, with far less suffering. I did an average 10:37 pace for that marathon (including the minutes I spent at the side of the road resting). What if I had just gone into the marathon healthy, without messed up legs and feet and body, fully rested, and simply jogged slowly (for me) at 10:37 pace the whole way?
An even better reason: look at my training record that I’ve documented since February. My cramping and slowing down before mile 11 was a total joke. It wasn’t training that enabled me to get past that. It was overtraining that disabled my fitness.
Two months ago, in March, I was barely starting marathon training. I did a 12-mile run crossing Pittsburgh bridges 11 times that was tough for me. I averaged just a bit faster than 10-minute pace. Just a month later, I had already gotten much stronger: I did my hardest run, a 16-mile run, in 2:27, for an average of 9:11 pace. And I did that in Luna Sandals, with no blisters, no leg cramping, no problems. And without breakfast and without any Gatorade or gel or food during the entire run! And that was just a training run, not a race where I gave it my all.
Unfortunately, that 16-mile run was the last time I felt really strong. I screwed things up after that. I could have run the Pittsburgh Marathon that day, probably, and finished in 4:00.
I get the impression that some people are questioning my shoe choice, wondering whether wearing Luna Sandals messed up my marathon.
This also upsets me, because the last thing I want is for Luna Sandals to get a bad reputation just because I happened to be wearing them when I ran a bad marathon. Fact is, as I explained, I believe the Luna Sandals saved me from much worse. I had toe cramping wearing non-sandals in all my previous half marathons and marathons. And I have to refer again back to the 16-mile long run that I did in Luna Sandals. I didn’t wear these shoes untested in the marathon.
Finishing versus excelling
The problem with the marathon is that it is such a public event, and there is so much focus on “finishing” one. I don’t feel good about merely “finishing” a marathon. Here are some analogies I make to myself.
I’m an amateur flutist, and still a beginner, with only two years of serious self-study so far. Suppose I had the opportunity to somehow get put into a professional orchestra, and got assigned to perform a flute concerto. Suppose we did the performance, and after messing everything up and playing quite poorly, we got to the end. Would I feel proud of “finishing” the performance? This is exactly how I personally feel about what I did in the marathon.
Here are some possible modifications to the music program that would make me proud of “finishing”:
- Suppose that we took the flute concerto slowly enough that I could get most of the notes and expressiveness in. Then at least it would preserve some integrity that I could be proud of.
- Suppose that we chose a much easier and shorter piece that I could actually master, and we played that.
The analogues in the running world:
- I could have done the marathon very slowly, like with Sammy’s Birthday Run, and run an even pace, with no suffering other than extreme fatigue, and been proud of that.
- I could have abandoned the idea of finishing a marathon at all and choose to run half marathon or 5K races that I can run fast and well.
Personally, I am far more proud of my fastest 5K, 10K, and half marathon races than of any marathon I have done or ever will do again, because they stand as gems of perfect execution. I would rather do a smaller thing well and completely than a bigger thing badly and sloppily.
Nobody ever cheered for me as I performed my greatest feats in the 5K, 10K, and half marathon where I thought I was going to puke or fall apart, but those are the moments I treasure.
So in fact, I am abandoning the marathon and returning to trying to improve my performances at shorter distances. You will not be congratulating me as I shave off minutes or seconds from my times, but that’s OK.
I’m very emotional right now, and I felt now was as good a time as any to say something about my personal values and goals when it comes to running races, and by extension, to other aspects of my life.
I actually do feel good about finishing the marathon in one respect: I proved that even if I totally screwed everything up, and deserved all the pain I experienced, and it was all my own fault that I could have avoided, I went on anyway and got the job done. When I realize that this is what people are trying to communicate to me by congratulate me, I am very appreciative.
(Update of 2013-05-09)
The following day, the third day after the marathon, I was able to walk normally and was emotionally recovering as well and was embarrassed by this rant.comments powered by Disqus